A view of Baja Bay at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Photo credit: Oona Copperhill
If you’re looking for a warm and dry place to hang out with your kids this season, head underwater.
No, really. Radiant heat at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s brand-new Pacific Seas Aquarium will keep you toasty when it’s cold and wet outside. It’s easy to spend an entire morning exploring the 35,000-square-foot building with otherwise cooped-up kids.
Four years in the making, the new aquarium officially opened in Tacoma last month. The aquatic life represented here ranges from species native to Puget Sound down to Baja California. Through the end of the year, staff will be adding more animals to the water, so you’ll see more and more each visit.
Marine life all around you
“Oooh, there’s some fish!”
A mom walking in the front doors spotted the Baja Bay viewing window right away. Hammerhead sharks, spotted eagle rays and a pair of green sea turtle brothers swim by at eye level.
You can get another view of that 280,000-gallon tank from below, under a 10-foot tall semi-tunnel. It feels like you’re walking under the ocean — while staying completely dry. Sit down a while on the benches, enjoy the scenery and pretend you’re on a far-off vacation.
Even better, kids can dress up like the animals they see in the Baja Bay window. Choose from a shark, a sea turtle or a ray at the dress-up station. Custom, anatomically-correct costumes were specially designed for the new aquarium.
More kids' stuff
Throughout the building, we found tons of special features just for kids: a table with coloring sheets; a play kitchen stocked with food that fish eat; a growth chart, so you can see how you measure up to some of the sea creatures. (The hammerheads can grow to 8 to 10 feet tall!)
Many of the tanks come with interactive touchscreens so kids (and their grown-ups) can learn more facts about the animals. Shimmery lights projected onto the ground make you feel like you’re walking in sun-dappled water.
My kids’ favorite area was the Tidal Touch Zone, where no sea urchin, anemone or sea star escaped their eager pokes. (So much for staying warm and dry.) Mom’s favorite was the hand-washing station with child-height sinks right next to the touch zone.
The jelly gallery, featuring five kinds of jellies, is especially eye-catching for young children. Don’t miss the egg yolk jellies; you’ll know which ones they are because they look exactly like eggs cracked into a frying pan. The free-standing jellfyfish globe — the first of its kind in the U.S. — is also fun for kids. You can’t touch the jellies (duh), but you can feel the water running along the surface to make a sensory connection.
You’ll definitely want to meet Buddy, a big pink and black male California sheephead, the star of the California kelp forest tank. Like all California sheepheads, Buddy was born female and changed sex to become a male. Be the woke parent and explain “protogynous” to your kids!
Remember watching the video of Galloping Gertie in physics class? There’s a replica of the part of the bridge that fell into the water, which now serves as an artificial reef under the Tacoma Narrows Bridge. There’s also a 100,000-gallon Northwest Waters habitat that showcases the animals that live in Puget Sound.
The whole point of the aquarium is to help people make a connection to the ocean, all the animals that live in it and the problems they face.
PDZA never gets on its environmentalist high horse with that message, but the last stop in the new aquarium is a fabulous interactive exhibit about how you can help the ocean. Using a touchscreen, you can pledge to not idle your car, for example, and your selfie pops up on a giant sea mural.
Aquarium and zoo
As spelled out in its name Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium (PDZA) is a both a zoo and an aquarium and your ticket’s good for the entire place. Let the kids burn off some energy exploring the 550 animal species that live in the zoo habitats.
- The walruses were by far my kids’ biggest thrill; they shrieked like they were at a rock concert every time one of the ladies cruised by. It’s not every day that a walrus swoops by your window with just plexiglass separating you from 2,700 pounds of sea creature. There are only 14 walruses in human care in the U.S., and three of them live at PDZA.
- Feed the goats! A handful of pellets costs 50 cents, a bargain for the fun my kids had feeding the goats at the contact station. The goats stay behind a fence, so they’re not aggressively jumping on kids and scaring them like at some petting zoos. (Open 10 a.m.–3 p.m. daily.)
- The South Pacific Aquarium building houses a shark and stingray touch tank. You can even sign up to go swimming with the sharks. (Age 8 and up, no experience necessary. $60 for members, $75 for non-members)
- Ride a dromedary camel. The price is steep for a two-lap ride ($6 members, $8 non-members; ages 3 and up), but PDZA is the only zoo in the Northwest where you can ride a camel. Camel rides are available on weekends depending on weather.
- The fantastic Wild West show in the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater teaches kids to “choose to reuse” in a non-preachy way. Lots of animals pop by to get the message across, including a bald eagle, an aardvark and a dog in a hot air balloon! No additional charge; shows Saturdays and Sundays at noon and 3:30 p.m.
Tips for parents
For the best deal, buy tickets online to save $2. More importantly, you'll save yourself from the long line at the ticketing booth.
You’ll need a timed ticket for entry to the new aquarium, but once you’re inside, you can stay as long as you like.
Try to arrive right when PDZA opens, at 9:30 a.m. The grounds get more and more crowded as the day goes on. Parking is free, but by early afternoon on a weekend, all the lots tend to be full with cars crammed on the shoulder.
The new Pacific Seas Aquarium building is completely accessible, although you may be asked to park your stroller outside if it’s congested.
Pack a picnic! Outside food is permitted. Food is also available for purchase on site.
If you go...
Find it: Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium is at 5400 N. Pearl St., inside Tacoma's Point Defiance Park. It's centrally located for Tacoma and greater South Sound residents and well worth the trip from points farther afield. It's about 40 miles from Seattle or Bellevue, an hour’s drive without traffic. Get directions here.
Hours: Hours change seasonally; be sure to check the schedule before visiting. October hours are 9:30 a.m.–4 p.m. daily.
Tickets: General admission at the front gate is $20 for adults (ages 13–64), $10 for seniors (age 65+), $16 for youth (ages 5–12), $12 for tots (ages 3–4) and free for kids ages 2 and under. Prices include admission to both the zoo and the aquarium. Parking is free.